Are Renaissance Tapestries High Art?

Tapestry was the most expensive Renaissance art form (save perhaps for monumental architecture). Requiring the organized labor of multiple hands, sometimes over many months, beginning with a “cartoon” often by a major artist (such as Peter Paul Reubens), and created out of imported silks, wool, and precious metals, the weavings were far more laborious to construct than a single artist working oil paint onto a (relatively) small piece of canvas, or even a single artist painting in fresco on a large ceiling’s wet plaster. We now generally assume that Grand Master art was created by a single artist who had reached individual “mastery.” For a long time, such individually created art has been the touchstone for our sense of the artistic achievements of the Renaissance.

Valois Tapestry, the “Tournament”

Tapestry has thus been relegated to the status of a lesser art; perhaps it may be that it is difficult for a single viewing to grasp the design of a tapestry, so large are they that when one can finally get a view of the whole, the details of the images are rendered less visible. Rugs are not tapestries but are, like them, woven. This is textile art that has lasted, possibly because one can study rugs from a much more comfortable distance. Sometimes they are displayed on walls, or–as in the Renaissance–on tables. Truly great rugs, like great tapestries, require massive rooms in which to display their particular graces. Castles, palaces, and museums are usually the place one finds both kinds of historical woven art. Or one does not always find them, because they are made of fabric delicious to various insects, and so are vulnerable to all sorts of decay, and are often put in storage for preservation. But they are powerful examples of Renaissance art–and of Renaissance power–and have rather more to teach us than a lot of smaller and more precious (because better known) works of oil paint daubed on canvas.

The Valois Tapestries

Only recently recognized as the commissions (and therefore creations) of Catherine de’ Medici, Queen Mother of France, the Valois Tapestries comprise a set of eight monumental weavings (some 12×30 feet in size). They were traditionally hanging in the first floor Gallery of the Uffizi in Florence and so were the first artworks a visitor would see on entering the Medici collections–a perfect introduction to the Medici’s artistic patronage.

Having been in storage for decades in the twentieth century, they have been somewhat lost to the eye of art history. However, in the twenty-first century six of them have now been completely renovated and were put on display in January, 2019, in a grand exhibition, “Renaissance Splendor,” at the Cleveland Art Museum in January, 2019. The Cleveland museum had joined with the Friends of the Uffizi to underwrite the renovation of the tapestries. Overjoyed at this news, in a cold January I rushed to buy plane tickets for Cleveland and spent 3 days walking through melting snow to and from my hotel room to the museum, studying and taking pictures of the amazing artworks, overwhelmed by their size and colors.

Cleveland Art Museum, January 20, 2019; viewers are looking at (left) “The Journey” and (right) the left side of “The Tournament”

The tapestries are daunting not merely by their size, but by the glittering sumptuousness of the materials: gold and silver wrapped threads shine among the rich colors of silk threads. Below is a detail of the “Polish Ambassadors” taken at an angle so that it might be easier for you to see the gleam of the precious metal-wrapped threads. The silver on the ambassadors’ hats is juxtaposed to the gold filigree of the red dress of the lady dancing behind them. For a riveting video look at the metals when they were being refurbished during restoration see:

Detail of the “Polish Ambassadors” tapestry

Polish Ambassadors, 1573

The “Polish Ambassadors” pictures the magnificent festival Catherine put on in 1573 at the Tuileries Gardens in Paris to celebrate her third son’s elevation to the throne of Poland as King (it was an elective office and his older brother King Charles IX had spent a great deal of money for him to win the title–thus Charles could be rid of his problematic little brother). Catherine is center stage, dressed as usual in her contrasting black mourning garments. She also organized the details of the dancing itself, designing the medallions the nymphs carried. Behind her in the background is her creation of the Tuileries, a palace and gardens built on the site of tile works she had had removed in order to construct a palace for herself. The tapestry thus celebrates her work in at least three interconnected artistic modes: architecture/urban planning, performance and dance, as well as the commission of the tapestry itself.

The Polish Ambassadors is unique in the tapestry series in that both the foreground and the middle ground of the picture space are occupied by events occurring at the same time. A far more typical arrangement in all the other tapestries is the foreground acting something like a frame for the middle ground’s events, the foreground offering life-size standing portraits of Catherine’s family members, as they would have appeared in the 1570’s (when the tapestries were woven). The middle ground would then have represented Catherine’s so-called “magnificences,” or huge out-door performances that had been mounted at varying moments during the 1560’s. A decade or so thus differentiates the foreground (frame) from the middle ground (performance) of the rest of the tapestries.

The Journey


The Journey

“The Journey” shows the Valois family traveling from the Chateau d’Anet to Bayonne, beginning the Grand Tour when Catherine escorted her second son, the 13- year-old-Charles IX, down the length of France in order to introduce him to his realm (1564-65). The King at the center of the tapestry is not, however, Charles IX who had died, but the current king, Henri III, Catherine’s third–and favorite–son. None of the deceased members of the family are included, as Catherine’s purpose was not to commemorate but to insist upon the vital power of the dynasty.

Valois Tapestry, The Elephant

“The Elephant” presents an image of a currently unknown event in the 1560’s which staged an Elephant on a “carousel.”  Even though we don’t know the exact “Magnificence” the scene captures, the image  of the Elephant had been used by François I to represent his martial power as a general of the army; in a tapestry series he had commissioned, based on the life of Scipio, the famous Roman general who had defeated Hannibal and whom François I emulated when he went to war in Italy, elephants are shown at war.   Because the groups of attackers in “The Elephant” are dressed variously as Turks, Scottish Highlanders, and other exotics, Lisa Jardine and Jeremy Brotton have suggested that battle scenes such as this display intimidating threats of violence, intended to show as François I’s Hannibal series had, Valois military might.  But the battle scenes in Catherine’s “Magnificences” are very different; they represent not military attacks, but artful orchestrations of battle drills  The scene is above all a spectacular entertainment, with a trained elephant on a pedestal, balanced groups of “attackers,” and–perhaps most importantly–an audience. Catherine sits in the upper left corner under a canopy watching the performance, as do a number of other courtiers.  The event may well have demonstrated the skills of warfare, but the point is not death but art. The dance-like arrangement of groups of warriors is saliently apparent in the “Tournament.”  There we see symmetry arranged for the purposes of art, not martial might.

Detail from the “Tournament”

The two white horses entering on either side of the “battle” field balance each other as do the two elegant parade chariots in the background behind them. Seated in the very middle of the canopied viewing platform is, some have suggested, Catherine de’ Medici wearing the gold wedding dress shown in an early portrait of her as Queen, not widow. The symmetry, arranged with an artful looseness (and not the stiffness of a military drill) recalls the orchestrations of a dance, much like the actual dance at the center of the “Polish Ambassadors.” No soldier is shown wounded or dying, as is the case in tapestries which do celebrate the power and gore of battle. Catherine’s purpose was always peace. As the “Tournament” shows in its frame, Catherine stands on the left along with Marguerite de Valois and Marguerite’s new husband, Henri de Navarre, presenting to all viewers the marriage Catherine had made between the Catholic house of Valois and the Protestant Bourbon house of Navarre. Although the wedding that was supposed to bring Protestants and Catholics together ended in the catastrophic tragedy of the “St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre” in which thousands of Protestants were slaughtered by their Catholic countrymen, Catherine clearly attempted in the “Tournament” to establish the marriage as an signal part of her pacific agenda.


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